- Associated Press - Thursday, July 26, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said Thursday that a state agency director is backing off of accusations that Reeves and his staff used political pressure to push a highway project near his home.

However, a letter from Department of Transportation director Melinda McGrath said Reeves’ staff took the “highly unusual step” of communicating directly with utility providers about the project.

The project to widen Mississippi Highway 25, also known as Lakeland Drive, once included plans to build a frontage road connecting a shopping area to two gated subdivisions, including one where Reeves lives.

The $2 million frontage road has not been built. Plans for it were put on hold after the Clarion Ledger reported in early July that McGrath said the Department of Transportation had received political pressure about the project from “the Senate side” of the Legislature. She didn’t name specific people, but Reeves, as lieutenant governor, presides over the Senate.

Reeves has said he and his staff did not pressure the department, and he sent McGrath a letter July 11 asking her to specify any “unacceptable interactions” with the Legislature about the highway project. McGrath responded Wednesday, and Reeves publicly released her letter Thursday.

“As acknowledged in your letter, the Lieutenant Governor communicates infrequently with MDOT,” McGrath wrote. “As a result, the Office of the Lieutenant Governor’s ongoing interest in the Highway 25/Lakeland Drive widening project assigned heightened importance and priority to this project.”

She wrote that Reeves’ staff was told that utility delays could delay construction.

“Your staff took the highly unusual step of communicating directly with utility providers and worked to resolve various issues to keep the project on schedule - using political authority that MDOT does not possess,” McGrath wrote.

McGrath wrote that it is “perfectly within the duties and responsibilities of legislators” to inquire about transportation issues. She wrote that her definition of “political pressure” is any effort by the Legislature to put priority on projects that are not outlined in Vision 21, a state law requiring the transportation department to develop a statewide method to identify the need for highway and bridge projects. She wrote that legislators passed a bill requiring the Highway 25 widening project to begin immediately.

Reeves said it’s not unusual for legislators to push for specific highway projects. He also said a budget bill passed in 2015 had $10 million for the Highway 25 widening and it made “absolutely no mention of the frontage road project.”

“It has been reported that it was pressure by the Senate when she referred to political pressure,” Reeves said Thursday at the Capitol. “But let’s be clear: Laws that are passed in this building have to be voted on by the House of Representatives, they have to be voted on by the Senate and, short of a veto, they are signed by the governor.”

McGrath said in her letter that “the frontage road option was pursued” as part of the highway expansion because, for safety reasons, adding a traffic signal was not a viable option for the two gated subdivisions. People who live in the subdivisions have said turning left onto Highway 25 is difficult because of heavy traffic.

Reeves is expected to run for governor in 2019, as is Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood. Last week, Hood sent letters to lawmakers and transportation officials, telling them not to destroy electronic or paper records that show communication about the road project, which has been put on hold. Hood said he wants the records by Aug. 1, and he said he might ask the state auditor to investigate whether public money was spent to increase the value of any elected official’s private property.

At his news conference Thursday, Reeves asked whether Hood has political motivations for seeking the records.


Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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